Cultural critique is in a tricky spot. Living as we do under an extremist government, it is hard to know what to do with criticism, or how to consume art that does not carry a big rubber stamp declaring it “political.” It’s hard to defend doing anything except being in the streets.
There are many bad arguments circulating on this topic. The musician Amanda Palmer, for example, has asserted that President Donald Trump will make punk rock great again. Palmer, who says she has “studied Weimer Germany extensively,” told a conference in Australia, “We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.”
In a superficial sense, her theory is understandable. Art has a way of flourishing in the most hostile climates, and artists under repression have produced work of extremely high quality. Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while locked in a tower. Athol Fugard wrote plays about South African life at a time when black and white actors could not appear together on stage. What would Osip Mandelstam have written in a different Russia? Who would Cicero have been without Mark Antony? (After Cicero’s execution, Antony’s wife Fulvia took up Cicero’s head and, with the pins from her hair, stabbed his golden tongue.)
As Palmer would have it, our critics should await a gilded age of subversion. This subversion will be defined by satire, which is a form of art that directly takes on those in power. Our songs will be about those figures, the way that the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” was about the Queen. A new movement will arise, requiring interpretation and judgment, and so the critic will be redeemed.
But this is not a good basis for believing that the arts matter now. For one thing, it relies on a vision of cultural politics that is tied necessarily to the state.
For another, it is not useful. We know that the arts are unkillable. But that knowledge does not really augment or contribute to the arts themselves. A contemporary poet should read the work of Mandelstam in order to join his tradition, not think about how well Mandelstam did considering the conditions, or envy his suffering. Anyway, a suspicion that the arts may gain in quality due to an outburst of popular rage is not a justification for hiring highfalutin critics of the arts. Thinking about the Weimar Republic does not comfort me.
Another bad approach to the arts under extreme conditions is the philosophy of escapism. Transportation via art—film, painting, novel—always has its place. The word ecstasy derives from the idea of standing outside oneself. Ecstatic experiences of art are necessary for our survival. But in times of fear and uncertainty the consumer of art can become a consumerist. In these cases, the viewer binge-watches or loses herself in the visual maze of Instagram for the sheer purpose of erasing herself. This is reasonable but it is not the primary reason why art is necessary. Escapism or ecstasy suggests an abnegation of thought: It renders the critic totally useless.
And so, cultural critics fall into a trap. We worry that our work is indulgent (I recently reviewed an opera about a mermaid) and we succumb to binaristic thinking—is the art against Trump or escaping from Trump?
Recently I had a beer with my friend Kimmie Regler, a radio producer who went to grad school for classics. She offered me a useful example. When scholars read literature of the early imperial era of Rome—Lucan, in her example—they almost always make a big mistake. They rush to identify the author’s attitude toward the new emperor on the scene, “as though when Tiberius came into power the Roman elite woke up and were like, ‘Oh fuck, this is DIFFERENT and this is all we can think about now.’” But in fact, Romans saw the régimes of Tiberius and Nero not as sea changes but rather as “grotesque” exaggerations of “features that were long baked into Roman politics and culture.”
Approaching Lucan in this narrow way would be akin to 31st-century scholars poring over the novels of, say, Jonathan Franzen to discover whether he thought Donald Trump was good or bad, instead of absorbing his depiction of the features of American politics and culture in the early 21st century on its own terms. Binaristic readings of Lucan—was he appeasing the emperor or subverting his rule?—blot out vast swaths of meaning. They also totally fail to see that Lucan’s political epics “work as spaces to reconfigure agency and the political (or philosophical) self,” as Regler put it. In simpler terms: “It’s not always about Nero.”
It would promote our president to compare him to Nero, a very bad man, but let’s do it anyway. It’s not always about Trump.
Art is about creating those spaces evident in Lucan’s epics. It’s as if a zone is staked out for a variety of ideas and postures to flex and interact. This zone is the place where the arts play. It is not an apolitical place, it is just not owned by government. In this aesthetic space, the arts explore a less confined politics than the one that controls the state. The state is not the beginning, end, or the reason for this space.
Lucan does not rely on Nero to create his political space. He does not make art the way that Amanda Palmer suggested we make it, chaining aesthetics to those in power. Instead, Lucan creates a space for negotiation. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière would link this space to a concept called dissensus. Rancière is a very graduate-school type of writer, in the sense that you would probably only come across him in a university class, but Rancière’s thinking is anything but genteel. (He hates the police, and thinks that the traditional relationship between professor and student exists only to perpetuate inequality. You’d like him!) Rancière would say that this space can only be created through aesthetics, which means that we’ll always need cultural critics.
The critic should see art this way, now. Painting, music, television, the visual culture of the internet, poetry: These art forms and their consumers and critics represent an aesthetic space whose boundaries are not defined by the president. Unless we believe in and nurture this space, the critic is stuck forever explaining how this or that book is crucial reading “in Trump’s America.” But this type of reviewing hobbles thought, because it reduces all art to the structure of satire. It is as if Trump is a spider in the middle of a web, and every review that tethers the meaning of a pop song to his régime strengthens it. I am guilty of this type of criticism, in very recent weeks. But I know that I write such things as an emotional defense of my own place in the culture. Nobody wants to feel useless.
The age of Trump has coincided with a new age in communications. Every piece of cultural criticism must be marketed on social media under a clickable headline. This is a valuable service; it helps the reader to navigate her own way through the media landscape, not tied to any single outlet but instead following ideas as they disperse and morph and converse (negotiate, in other words). Twitter and the rest function like a sort of map to the aesthetic space we have been discussing.
But reducing meaning down in size inevitably reduces it down in complexity. All maps do that, since they have a metaphorical relationship to real space. All those millions of tweets in turn form their own discursive space, and that space exists in a sort of parallel to the actual universe of cultural criticism existing out there in the long-form dimension. The conversations and clusters of meaning that populate social media work as a shorthand for the links they contain, and inevitably they end up exerting a powerful force on the discourse. It’s as if the map is telling the territory where to build its museums.
I mention this only to say that when criticism ties itself to anything it risks acting like the scholar who can only see the poet as for or against his emperor. The shorthand discourse of social media tends to pile up meaning in certain places: around the word FEMINISM, for example, or according to hidden structures like friendship groups.
The radical potential of aesthetic negotiation relies, I think, on total freedom. Decoupled from government politics, cultural politics knows no bounds. But tweeting about an issue can encourage the critic (and her reader) to pick a stance, thereby helping to shore up the big pile of social-media meaning. Our space for aesthetic negotiation ends up laden with binaristic thought after all.
In high school, I would read a history of European art by a nun called Sister Wendy Beckett, over and over. Many of the images I cut out and then glued into my sketchbook. I did not think she would mind me defacing her book, and appropriating it as my own.
Sister Wendy Beckett gave up her life in the world for God, and then she took time out from God for art. Her example seemed like enough to make writing about art intrinsically, inexplicably worthwhile. But now, all these years later, I see that Beckett’s book was an act of service. She did not just commune with the artworks, she wrote about it, to an audience. In this way, Beckett gave me a community made of words. I will never forget how in one caption to a Picasso painting Beckett described its “frankly rendered pudenda.”
Cultural criticism is not self-indulgent: It is a service to the community. The critic plays an important role in the negotiations of our aesthetic spaces, the spaces that we could not understand Lucan without. All these people: Trump, Nero, Lucan, Rancière, Kimmie Regler, Sister Wendy Beckett, Amanda Palmer. I make them visible, introduce you to them one by one. Imagine them standing around you, looking over your shoulder. Every piece of cultural criticism is manufactured by human community and then offered back to that community as a gesture of thanks. The critical space is ours—yours and mine. It’s about us, not him.